MAY 1 - 18
Saturday, May 1
One of the highest profile art institutions of the world, MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is taking a look at traditional printmaking - traditional processes, that is, like etching and lithography - in South Africa. Prints curator Judy Hecker is making an extensive trip around the country, visiting printmakers and printmaking studios to get a feel for what is going on here. This kind of printmaking has taken second place in recent years to digital prints and new media, and it's great to see the classic processes getting this attention. Linocuts in particular, because of the simple materials required, and their potential for powerful graphic images have played an important part in the history of South African art, particularly in earlier years.
This morning, fresh from their trans-Atlantic flight, Judy and her husband Matt climb the four flights of stairs to All Star Studio to meet me and Paul Edmunds and to look around.
Sunday, May 2
When am I going to be able to leave for a trip anywhere without a desperate rush? The mad scramble to get ready for going to Dakar for the 2004 Biennale has been going on for a week, and the only peaceful part about leaving is that moment on the plane when the seat belt light clicks off and the cabin crew member delivers the makings of a perfect drink.
Monday, May 3
All the artists will be staying in the Novotel, a big, Holiday Inn sort of establishment overlooking the sea, with the isle of Goree in the distance. Last time, many pleasant hours were spent hanging out by the pool, but now it is barricaded off for renovations. Pity.
At the suggestion of the Biennale office, I have brought my prints with me to be framed here, thus saving the cost of airfreight. Since the opening of the Biennale is on Friday with the press conference on Thursday, there is not much time. Since it was their idea, I had thought the Biennale office would have made a pre-arrangement with a framer, but not so. A framer must be found, and fast, so it's out on to the crowded streets of Dakar to track one down, aided by Ethiopian jury member Meskerem Assegued.
The first possibility is in a market, a long counter open to the street, golden clocks vying for display space with ornately framed Asian landscapes. Non merci. The second is even less promising, but gives directions to a proper framers. Here, Mr Kadoura, the French Moroccan owner, throws up his hands at the idea that he can frame six large prints by Wednesday evening, Not possible! ... five days, no less! ... but for the Biennale ... (sigh) ...maybe ... perhaps � Eventually it is agreed that if the Biennale office will phone back and confirm the price by the end of the day, he will put on a superhuman effort and get the work done by 5 p.m. two days hence. Back at the office, I am assured this confirmation will be made immediately.
Later, I share a cab with French critic and curator Thomas Boutoux, another jury member who has come to help out with the organisation of the Biennale. For the second time, the core of the Biennale, the International Exhibition, is being held at CICES, a somewhat futuristic trade exhibition space not far from the airport, and tonight there is a meeting with Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy who is in charge of installing the work.
"This is the biennale of new technology," says El Hadji, gesturing at the beginnings of dry walled video rooms which are trying to insert themselves amongst the triangulated spaces of CICES. Admiring his dress sense (black boiler suit, leather trimmed black beret), I ask which space will house my video and where the prints will go. My name does not appear to be on the plan, but one of the advantages of arriving before the other artists is that one can lay claim to an appropriate space. I choose one which has the drawback of a paint spattered royal blue carpet but El Hadji assures me this will be replaced. Hope so.
Tuesday, May 4
The artists are starting to arrive. At breakfast this morning, Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr is seated by the window. One of the prizewinners on the last Dak'Art, he will show the piece which was on the African show "Faultlines' at the Venice Biennale last year, Tabla. In a vertical video projection, expert hands beating a blue and white ceramic drum play to an audience of small clay drums arrayed on the floor in front of the projection. The Biennale office is having the small drums made here in Dakar, says Moataz. Oh really?
Laurie Ann Farrell of the Museum for African Art flies in this morning, just in time to go out for a delicious lunch of Senegalese prawns, and artist Doreen Southwood arrives from Cape Town, bringing part of her sculpture 'The Swimmer' with her, the bronze figure of the swimsuited girl. The diving board part is to come by airfreight, but the big problem with airfreighting for all the artists was that no one could establish the name of the company designated to do the courier work until the very last minute. The Biennale office simply did not answer all the desperate emails, so all of the work left very late. In fact, when Doreen phones from the hotel lobby, the work still has not left Johannesburg.
Wednesday, May 5
Durban artist Thando Mama is here now, and South African National Gallery curator and Dak'Art jurist Emma Bedford. There is a noon meeting for the artists at CICES. Not much seems to have happened since Monday night as far as construction goes. Our question to the organisers is: where are the projectors/DVD players/speakers etc? A rumour is that the tender was confirmed only on Monday. "The equipment will be here tomorrow", we are told. But tomorrow is supposed to be the press conference!
At the end of the afternoon, I head for the picture framers. The shop is crowded, and I get the impression Mr Kadoura is avoiding me. Eventually we speak. "The work is not done," he tells me. "The Biennale office confirmed only today". I am speechless. "Tomorrow night, maybe." Later, his English speaking friend phones the hotel to tell me there is more which Mr Kadoura had felt unable to convey to me in French: in the rush, one of the prints has been stained by glue. Can I be at the shop at 8 a.m.tomorrow to see what can be done?
Thursday, May 6
By 8.15 a.m. I am roaring through the Dakar morning traffic, a passenger in a large truck on the way to Mr Kadoura's out of town workroom. Glue has removed the surface of one of the prints on the side, and damaged the top corner of the sky. "We can cut the sky off and make it a little smaller", suggests Mr Kadoura, "and put a grey mount around it". No no no no no. It will just have to be framed as is.
Back at the hotel for late breakfast, Emma tells me the Americans are having their press conference this morning. For the first time this year, there is an official United States participation , In a project called 3x3, curators Salah Hassan and Cheryl Finley, both of Cornell University, are presenting artists David Hammons, Cuban-born Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Pamela Z in three different projects.
It's really interesting that there has been this development at Dakar, and it is undoubtedly this added attraction which has brought a slew of curators and art world people from the north eastern United States to Dak'Art for the first time. The conference will be followed by a tour of each project with lunch on Goree included in the day. Sounds delightful, but our own press conference is supposed to be this afternoon. Will go to the first part, which is Maria's installation, 'Threads of Memory'.
Located in an old textile factory which has been completely cleaned out and renovated to make a contemporary exhibition space, Maria's piece is a five-screen video installation, beautifully installed. Shots of people walking on city pavements are layered and interspersed with images of fabric and threads twisting and unfolding, and the past is evoked by flashes of a different way of life - a woman lifts a basket of fruit on her head. The artist has left some of the abandoned machinery in place, and worked with local women to string ropes of beads from some of it, and also made screens of bobbin-like shapes of tinted polymer through which the projections can be viewed. The low toned music adds to the richly contemplative and slightly melancholic air.
After the Biennale is over, the factory will continue to be used as an art space, under the auspices of Cacao - Central African Contemporary Art Organisation, under arts organiser Koyo Koh. A real contribution to the city.
The press conference for the international artists' show at CICES in the afternoon is a non-event. Much of the work still has not arrived, and there is still no technical equipment. At a meeting for the artists beforehand, the head of the international jury, the dynamic Sara Diamond of Canada's Banff Center tells us we will walk the press through this one, and have another conference next week when everything is finally installed. Not many press people come anyway. Just as well. The catalogue will not be ready for tomorrow either, as the printers went on strike this week.
Friday, May 7
Don't sleep well. Hate being in a situation where I have no control over getting my work up in time. Go to CICES early, and commandeer the carpenter to hang my prints, which Mr Kadoura delivered last night. A grubby yellow carpet is being laid down over the bright blue one. Not an improvement. I had hoped the blue carpet was going to be stripped out of the video space, but on examination it's stuck down with industrial strength glue. Still, I suppose it's marginally better than the yellow one outside.
The opening is at 4 p.m. and at about 11 a.m. there is an announcement that the equipment has arrived. Like starving refugees as the grain truck pulls in, or badly behaved children at a Christmas party, the artists dash and grab for the boxes being unloaded. I am too late to get anything. Another consignment will arrive "soon". Two hours later, the next lot arrives. Still no DVD players. "We are going out to buy those now". The opening speeches are already well under way in the CICES auditorium by the time the DVD players come, and I shall forever be grateful to Algerian artist Zoulihka Bouabdellah who expertly tunes mine in.
Enter the auditorium just in time to hear Mich�le Magema announced as the winner of the Grand Prize, for Oye Oye, a lively satirical video about marching for Mobutu. Head jurist Sara Diamnd is announcing the prizes, giving a short precis of why the judges thought each a worthy prizewinner. When an official tries to stop her talking too long. she elbows him deftly in the ribs. Thando Mama wins the prize of the French Community of Belgium, for his piece 'We are Afraid' which can also be currently seen on 'Decade of Democracy" at the SANG.
Miss the Pamela Z performance because the CICES opening is still in progress. It is the nature of Biennales to be installing frantically up to the last minute, and to have clashing events, In the end, in spite of everything, this one doesn't look too bad. Tonight after dinner, everyone is going to Youssou N'Dour's club. I went last time I was here, and would love to go again, but he only starts performing at 2 a.m. and I am just too drained.
Saturday, May 8
A day of conferencing of the first day of Meetings and Exchanges is followed by a party given by the Americans at a swish waterside restaurant. Maria Magdalena Campos Pons comes over, and introduces Thando and I to some of the visitors, and we meet MOMA curator Sally Berger, and Mary Ellen Strom, of the Video and Graduate Faculty of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It's great to relax, make new friends, dance. Okwui Enwezor comes up to tell me he saw my work at CICES, and I should get the carpet out of my space. If only!
Sunday, May 9
The best thing about Dak'Art is that they do bring all the artists and curators, and breakfasts provide perfect opportunities for exchanges and discussions. Sit down today with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jan Erik Lindstrom from the Bild Museet in Sweden, and are joined by film artist Isaac Julien and Mark Nash.
A prickly morning at the Douta Seck conference center. Curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yvo Mesquita, bumped off the programme yesterday, must be fitted in along with all the speakers already scheduled. Barbara Murray speaks on American cultural imperialism, with a call for "no more missionairies," saying dialogue can only take place between equals. Okwui Enwezor speaks next - his is the keynote speech. Surprisingly, considering his pre eminent position in the global art world, he talks about "the twilight of the curator", The selection of Dak'Art is currently made by an international jury from submitted documentation, but Okwui now proposes that the next biennale must abolish the selection committee, and appoint a curator/s to impose coherence, his point being the "incredible sense of separation between the work on the Biennale". Before he can complete his paper, Okwui is cut off by the chair for lack of time, which is a pity. One would have liked to heard him out.
Pamela Z's opening in the slave house on the isle of Goree is this afternoon. In the small space of the room used to house the women slaves, the window openings have been boarded over, and a six track sound installation entitled Just Dust is played - Pamela Z is talking of her first trip to Dakar, her experiences here, the souvenirs she takes home. The space is so loaded with painful history, it is difficult to insert the present here, but the artist tells her story simply.
Monday, May 10
In the old Palace of Justice, derelict and mosaiced, Hand Ulrich Obrist is presenting a show of videos and films by artists from the rest of the world. Some are here for the opening, the stellar line-up of Doug Aitkin, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Yang Fudong, Isaac Julien and Anton Vidokle are all on the programme. In a large upstairs hall, plastic mats and cushions cover the floor. All of the films are on one reel, and make for a dense and engaged viewing experience.
Thursday, May 13
Last day in Dakar. All the work is finally here, and up, and this afternoon is the real press conference, at which the catalogue will be distributed. It will also be an opportunity to see the work of the other artists, not yet viewed in the anxieties of trying to get one's work up and running. Moataz Nasr never did get his clay drums, but the small wooden djembes bought in the market give the piece a different dialogue between video image and drums to the one it had in Venice.
Last Dak'Art, video was the exception, with sculpture made from found objects possibly the most dominant medium. The year, video plays a prominent part, from Gregg Smith's fabric tunnel at the entrance, with back projections of the artist acting out his experiences as a tourist in Europe, to exceptional pieces on the show by artists like Khaled Hafez and Zoulihka Bouabdellah. Zoulikha's piece La Robe is a video of an elaborately embroidered and beaded wedding dress, laid out. To a background of tinny military music sequins on the dress flicker and flash. As the light gradually dims like twlight coming on, shadows move across the dress which has now taken on the character of a landscape, a landscape in which the lights are going out.
Friday, May 14
Back in Cape Town. Everything very autumnal looking. Lots of dead leaves.
Tuesday, May 18
Laurie Farrell phones from New York to say she went to see the Whitney Biennial the day before. She points out that the Whitney and Dak'Art are the two biennales which operate on a geographical basis, and wanted to see how the two compared. Surprisingly perhaps, considering all the technical difficulties and tackiness of Dak'Art, Laurie feels that work-wise it held up well against the Whitney on the whole. Well, that's interesting to hear.